Jeff’s beautiful and giving wife Sherry, Jeff’s extraordinarily talented and beautiful daughters Jordan, Alex and Eden , our loving parents, Harry and Naomi, his wonderful in-laws George and Marilyn, our devoted brother Darry, Jeff’s sibs-in-law Randy, Debbie, Sherri and David, Jeff’s nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews, Jeff’s colleagues, fellow journalists, millions of readers, the clerk at 7-11, the elevator operator, and Florida Turnpike toll takers —- we all have something in common—- and that is that the almighty G-d blessed us with a 50-second, 50 minute, or 53 year encounter with Jeff. (40 seconds)
Jeff treated everyone, in the wide swath of road he traveled with the same love in his heart, the same interest in their life story, and the same respect for their humanity — whether that person was a mistreated Micky Mouse at Disney, a much-loved celebrity, a guy filling up the paper towels in the mens’ room. or President Clinton, who wrote a personal note on White House stationary to Jeff thanking him for quote, “the sensitive, thoughtful piece on Roger” —Clinton’s troubled sibling.
Jeff saw the beauty, the dream, the challenges and the potential in everyone. If you’re in this room, on your computer, or on a plane somewhere reading The Last Lecture in any one of 46 languages, you know this.
My Jeff just goes back a little longer. I had the joy of Jeff in my life when there was hardly anyone else around. Our brother Darry would delight in his baby cheeks and squeeze his fat forearm, as Jeff and I, just 19 months apart became fast friends.
Our mother Naomi was totally dedicated to her children, her home, her neighbors, her synagogue and her community. Nothing was ever out of place, everyone seemed happy. My father, was devoted to making a beautiful life. My mother called those years Camelot We were organized and moving forward. Our mother took all of our achievements and all of our setbacks and ran them through her veins. She taught us that everything we did was important, every step a building block.
We were we told that we could accomplish anything and our parents were 100% supportive of wherever that took us.
My parents gave us kids the kind support and encouragement My mother was one of the most important gusts of wind beneath Jeff’s wings, with my father was right by her side.
What kind of son was Jeff?
When my father retired and started his wartime autobiography, Jeff was behind him. He worked with my father in editing his memoirs — a priceless historical and family legacy. Jeff helped my father achieve in his later years what he only dreamed of in his youth.
Jeff and I formed our own unit of two within our family of six. He wanted to share everything with me. He’d come home from Kindergarten, sit me on the step, and tell me everything he learned. His heart and compassion was beginning to form. When our favorite TV shows were on, he’d call, “Lis, get your pillow and blanket” and summon me to the TV. He wanted me to see it more than he wanted himself to see it.
Although Jeff seemed easy-going, he liked to do what he liked to do and how he liked to do it. He never feigned an interest in art or opera. If he was somewhere he’d rather not be, he was OK as long as he had reading material. The girls showed me a picture last night of Jeff in a Chuckie Cheese ballpit reading the newspaper. He did the same in Disneyworld. If you couldn’t find him, he was off pursuing his two pleasures in life — a soft pretzel and a newspaper. Jeff was just not interested in material things. He just didn’t care about it.
Jeff started entertaining by making funny faces in our brother’s bar mitzvah pictures. Later he would play cards on a glass table with our Grandpop Lester and look at the face-down cards under the table, just to get a rise out of Pop.
Jeff got his start in the newspaper business in sales. Our brother Darry would pay him 3 cents a paper to sell his extra papers from his paper route on the beach. Pop was the boys’ h first assistant in the newspaper business. An early riser, he would fold papers for Darry and Jeff’s paper routes. As usual, I had to share Jeff’s life. Before long, I became an early female paper-route pioneer with a terrible throw.
Jeff wrote his first book—My Son the Sergeant—at age 6..
At nine he rode his bike across the length of Brigantine, an island near Atlantic City, to take his first poem, My Castle in the Sand to “The Brigantine Times” newspaper office. They published it. It was his first work about loss….loss of a beloved castle in the sand to the natural forces of nature…the incoming tide.
As a teenager his poem, “My Heaven Destroyed,” about plans to put a shopping center in the woods behind our house won him The Edith Garlow Poetry award of $500, a hefty sum in the 70’s.
Our childhood was filled with adventure at the shore where we shared idyllic summers with our grandparents. At that time of year, we were a family of eight.
At Steel Pier we saw Chicago, Tony Orlando and Dawn and our favorite, The Four Seasons. I cherish those days with all my heart. A few years ago Jeff took David and I to see Jersey Boys, which brought it all back. While I waxed nostalgic Jeff said that the actor in the show was really better than Frankie Vali was by the 70’s.
Jeff’s humor was legendary. As a kid I once told him that I had a dream that he was under my bed and that he kept pushing up with his feet. Soon I started having the same dream every night. It felt so real. One night I woke and leaped on a figure escaping from under my bed to the hallway. It was Jeff.
Jeff talked about our shared childhood at my wedding.
“Lisa was my first friend,” he said, “and for so many years, my best friend, that I felt like I had a wife since the day I was born….and I wish you luck with that, David. As for David,
I met him in the lobby this morning and he seemed like a nice guy.”
Jeff’s sensitivity to others manifested itself at my wedding, too. There I was, dancing my first dance with my new husband and I feel a tap on my shoulder halfway through. It was Jeff. He said, “your father-in-law is standing over there by himself. You should dance with him.” I did.
In the wedding video I start the dance with my young husband and finished it with a man who had aged 42 years in four minutes.
A critic wrote that Jeff writes about the world we want to live in. With one tap on the shoulder, Jeff helped make what at the moment was a beautiful world, even better. It made my father-in-law’s life.
Jeff’s success didn’t stem from being a skilled journalist, dogged reporter, wordsmith, or poet. He had little interest in fiction—-either reading it or writing it. He wanted to tell real stories about real people. He tackled the toughest topics as his warmth and skill and sensitivity made vulnerable people – be they the sick, the grieving, the rich, the political or the famous feel that they could trust him— that their story was safe in his hands. Words and their placement were simply tools Jeff used to achieve this noble goal.
Jeff’s success was due to what lay within….the kind of person he was from the beginning. The Washington Post wrote that if you want heart, go to Jeffrey Zaslow.
Jeff lived in a world of heart every day.
By 4 PM on Christmas Eve he would be telling Target clerks how sorry he was that they had to work.” He would purposely wear the same Hawaiian shirt as the toll takers on the Florida Turnpike so he could say, “Hey, we’re wearing the same shirt.”
Jeff would take our grandmom Tillie food shopping, watch her compare every price, then at checkout, pay for the whole thing.
I am in awe of the sensitivity of the media as they tried to provide a snapshot of Jeff’s career and personality. In a taped interview with a Wall St. Journal editor, he spoke of the piles of story notes around Jeff’s office chair. When he ran out of space in that cube, he appropriated the next one.
Jeff was diligent about writing back to readers and signing books with personal messages. He was a mentor to me and so many others. When I was writing for newspapers, he read every one of my columns before publication. When I recently told him that the local paper wants me to write, they just don’t want to pay me, he said to do it anyway. He was of the mind that writers write. He never followed the money, only the story. Once, I complained about my stint as a substitute teacher.
He said, “write about it. Who hasn’t had a sub? It’s universal. ”
Jeff also knew which questions to ask to get answers that would resonate or entertain. He asked Ringo Star who was his favorite Beatle. Ringo responded, “Some days it’s me.”
My favorite All that Zazz column was a letter he published from a mom in 1996. I found this column recently and in our last phone conversation I got to tell him again how much it always meant to me.
It was about the advice a mother gave a young woman who came home from a singles dance and recounted the details of the night. The girl told her mother all about an incredible nerd who tried to dance with her. Her mother said,
“You know, this boy that you find so ugly an stupid is some mother’s pride and joy. She waited for him to come home, just like I waited for you, hoping to hear he’d had a nice time at the dance. But when he comes home, she’ll see his face, she’ll know that someone hurt him, and it’ll break her heart. So the next time a boy asks you to dance, before you turn him down or make fun of him, just remember, every boy is some mother’s son.
LBH, Del Mar California
Jeff wrote back:
Your mother’s advice should be printed up and distributed at every junior high dance in the country. It should be given out on school buses, passed bunk-to-bunk at each summer camp in the nation and repeated by parents everywhere to their impressionable children. In fact, I ought to post it at my annual Zazz Bash for singles. If a mother’s Hall of Fame were ever established, I’d nominate your mom for membership, and I’d advise people to travel great distances, just to read her words enshrined on a plaque. Thanks for sharing her wisdom.
This brand of compassion, this heightened awareness of the feelings of others…this was my brother, this was my Jeff.
With a career like his, it’s easy to focus on that, but everything he stood for in his writing, he stood for at home. Sherry was the love of his life. When they got engaged, Sherry told her new-mother-in law that she’d waited all of her life to meet Jeff. Their relationship was built on love and affection, friendship and humor. He called her Shirley. Together they raised their children with all of the values he espoused in his work. He tirelessly attended to the needs of his children…physically and emotionally. He had the highest standards for them. He traveled a lot, but his home office was his base for most of his life. He was changing diapers, driving carpools, and going to dance recitals. His daughters absolutely adored him and included him in decisions ranging from what college to got to, to what muffin to have for breakfast. He was their rock. You couldn’t talk to him on the phone without him saying, wait, hold on, that’s Jordan, or Alex, or Eden on the other line.
Regardless of the fact that Jeff represents TOLD, rather than untold stories and that his work will be around as long as the ink doesn’t fade from the page or the kindle is charged…our Jewish tradition will also not let us forget him.
I do not have to ask you to remember my brother’s heart and humor, greatness and goodness because his neshuma, his soul is alive in each of you. I will see it in your eyes when we meet and feel it in your touch when you take my hand.
Today I will let go of the hand that walked me across the street when I was too small to do so, the hand that hand that wiped away my tears, the hand that wrote words of love and wisdom for the world, the hand that hugged my husband and children who loved him so much.
Today I will let go of Jeff’s hand, but not his heart. He will be in mine, I in his. My nieces say I had the same joy of Jeff that they had, I just had it longer. I am grateful to G-d for this gift and trust him as he now takes my brothers hand.
May Jeff’s soul be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life. May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Jeff, I will tell you what our mother tells me— I will always be with you.